Living between Languages
In which T talks about reading and writing like a translator
If I were to write a personal history of literacy, it would probably start with translation. In the English-medium school I attended, the literature curriculum primarily focused on British stories and poems–a relic of the colonial era. Through the school years we were taught everything from “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man” to Shelley and Keats. However, once I came home from school, I would learn these texts with the help of my parents, both of whom were much more at ease in Bengali and Hindi than in English. So, it was commonplace for my father to gloss words from my English language textbooks in Bengali. I developed the habit of looking up English phrases and expressions in an English to Bengali dictionary. In a sense, then, my relationship with English was founded on translation. And yet, as I kept studying the language in school, I acquired a level of fluency that outpaced my fluency in my mother tongue, especially when it came to more formal written expressions.
I recall my father looking at me with concern and bewilderment when I chose Bengali language and literature as an elective subject in college while majoring in English. Choosing an elective subject in our university system was like declaring a secondary academic discipline and the coursework spanned two of the three undergrad years. ‘You don’t have a good enough grasp of Bengali to make it through the Calcutta University curriculum,’ my father had said. He was right–the curriculum was difficult, mainly because the university syllabus included a host of medieval and seventeenth-nineteenth-century texts that used the language in ways unfamiliar to me.
I did alright in the end. Not by mastering aspects of Bengali syntax or new vocabulary over the course of the two years, but by relying on translation. In Calcutta university, we had to write long, essay-type answers during timed examinations. I recall my examination experience as a practice in rapid translation. I would start writing sentences in Bengali and phrases in English would come to my mind, especially when I was trying to express more abstract ideas, and then I would rack my brains to find suitable replacements for those ideas in Bengali.
The practice of going back and forth between languages is perhaps the truest encapsulation of my syncretic relationship with both Bengali and English. This going back and forth was not simply confined to words and phrases. Rather it included entire texts. I have a distinct memory of calling up a friend a day or so before my Bengali exam in college and asking her to summarize for me what happens in Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel, Kapalkundala. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bengali was removed from the more colloquial diction known to me. I was very interested in that difference but I had also become interested in drifting, using the Bengali syllabus as a guide. I read way more charyapads (mystical poems composed around the tenth century) and padabalis (poetry about Radha-Krishna written between fifteenth and seventeenth centuries) than prescribed in the curriculum, because I was interested in reformist attitudes to faith, though I couldn’t put this so succinctly back then. And, even though Kapalkundala was on the syllabus, I spent a great deal of time reading Chattopadhyay’s another novel, Durgeshnandini. I had this vague ambition of emulating my father who had read all of Chattopadhyay’s novels during a bout of illness in his teens. He’d also read all of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s corpus. He did not think I would be able to complete either and I was set upon proving him wrong, as one does. It is a path I have now abandoned.
All this meant, I had skimmed Kapalkundala hurriedly before exams, instead of giving the time a novel like that demanded, and a few days before the exam I realized I had not understood the novel in any deep way because I did not even understand the language. So, I called my friend asking her to translate a form of Bengali into another for me (thank you, friend). During the exam, I decided to elevate my less-than desirable understanding of character and plot of Kapalkundala by writing beautifully about the various themes in the text, and for this, I drew upon my knowledge of postcolonial theory, especially postcolonial readings of The Tempest, which I’d read in my English courses. Kapalkundala shares a fair amount of plot details with the Tempest, so it was not a completely random exercise (also, I am certainly not the first or the only person to note the overlaps), but the experience of translating abstruse theoretical ideas over the course of a timed exam was, let’s just say, intense. My over reliance on postcolonial theory and a Shakespeare play also meant I may not have said many meaningful things about the regional and cultural details that make Kapalkundala unique as a historical romance, but looking at my marksheet, I can say I knew how to conceal the depths of my ignorance.
Now when I look upon those days another intriguing detail comes into view. At the time, I was thinking, I am moving between Bengali and English, but there were many other languages in the mix. My facility with written Bengali owes a great deal to comic books and folktales. I got a beautifully illustrated book of folktales in Bengali from the book fair when I was in primary school. Initially my mother read aloud from it to me and then, I would read on my own. In my childhood imagination I thought it was a Bengali book whose title just happened to be “Russian Folk Tales,” but of course, it was a book in translation. Recently I came across an article that explained my experience of growing up with Russian folktales in Bengali and finding a Bengali translation of Maxim Gorky’s Mat’ (Mother/ Ma) in the bookshelves. As Aveek Majumder is quoted saying in the article, “The average middle-class family could not afford English children’s books. But the English translations brought out by Russian publishers were absurdly cheap, as were the Bengali ones.” Apparently, the Soviet Union tried to distribute Russian literature in India, and had a robust translation programme that made this kind of distribution possible in the multilingual country.
Even after I was disabused of the notion that my book of Bengali folk tales was simply called “Russian,” I thought Tintin was a particularly brave Bengali boy going on adventures across the world. Never mind that Tintin’s day to day habits looked very different from mine. Perhaps I thought that’s how diaspora Bengalis behave–who knows? It did not help that my cousin, a few years older than me, named her dog “Kuttush”--Snowy’s name in the Bengali translations of Tintin. It felt like I was living in the same reality as Tintin. At some point, I must have recognized that Tintin was not Bengali. I understood that everyone in India became acquainted with Tintin through translations. But the character’s and the author’s cultural coordinates were not clear to me, I think, until I was standing in front of the Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels in 2016. Incidentally they were displaying special exhibits on Tintin and Smurfs that year. Turns out, one of my favorite Bengali characters from childhood was speaking French all along.
The theories and philosophies I have come to love through my academic experiences, were in many cases translations from languages like French, German, Sanskrit, and Tamil. The popular culture in India, even the mainstream Hindi cinema, is deeply informed by a variety of languages: the Hindi of Hindi films is a mix of Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, among other tongues. In other words, at least in my experience, I have found my intimacy with every language–whether that is Bengali, English, or Hindi–to be already mediated by other languages. This is the syncretic experience I have loved, and it is this experience that makes me adopt a skeptical attitude toward claims of linguistic exceptionalism and linguistic nationalism.
But despite my ambivalence at a more philosophical level, I do feel moved when a Hindi-language writer is recognized internationally. I am thinking of Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell, which is on the 2022 International Booker shortlist. I also feel moved when I detect reverberations of literary traditions from Bengal in literature from other parts of India or the world. One of my favorite English-language novels is Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, which is as steeped Bengali culture as any narrative can ever be. The combination of affinity and ambivalence I feel arises from recognizing that even as languages intermingle, the intermingling is dictated by structures of power. And yet, these power structures are not fixed or even sortable in binaries. For example, I can turn to Bengali as the language of my people, the oppressed of the colonial era. It was also probably the language of the common folk and the caste-oppressed in pre-colonial times given that vernacular compositions once challenged the authority of Sanskrit. But reading and writing in Bengali today is not subversive by default. Caste, class, and various other hierarchies are embedded in the structure of the language, and by extension, of the culture. Of course, the same language can be…and is used to interrogate and resist those hierarchies.
Since languages are not politically-neutral territories, the back and forth movement between them is not apolitical either. I have been reading some Bhakti poetry in Bengali of late–reading them seriously after many years, perhaps the first time since passing the Bengali elective papers in college. It is well known that Bhakti poems and Baul songs informed the works of Rabindranath Tagore. If anyone can name one Bengali-language writer, there is a good chance it would be Tagore. So, I am referring to him here. Anyway, so, Tagore was also a translator, though he may or may not have thought of his artistic practices as translation. What often goes unsaid when people discuss his movement between languages is that there are caste-class dynamics governing them. Tagore, a writer from a wealthy and influential Bengali family of dominant caste, was “translating” regional dialects and cultures, compositions of caste-oppressed artists, for new audiences. He wrote a poem titled “Raidas, the Sweeper” and another titled “Sweet Mercy” (published in the English-language weekly newspaper, Harijan, run by Gandhi) in which he describes Raidas/Ravidas, a poet-saint of the Bhakti tradition born into the community of leather workers. These poems are “translating” Raidas/Raviadas’s life and beliefs into English. However, as Joel Lee notes:
The Raidas of bhakti tradition is a complex figure whose poetic oeuvre includes critical deconstructions of caste ideology and visions of urban utopia as well as the kind of self-effacing love songs with which bhakti is often associated; his hagiography paints an equally mixed picture of a character inclined sometimes to meekness and other times to confrontation in his encounters with brahmins. The bhakti tradition thus offered to Tagore a range of interpretive possibilities. The Raidas that Tagore ultimately chooses to portray [is] scrupulous in his deference to the brahmin, observant of the law of keeping distance, solicitous of voluntary acts of mercy [...]. Tagore supplies a scene of tearful untouchable acquiescence to reformist Hindu leadership in full conformity with Gandhi's insistence that change can be driven by Hindu benevolence and not Depressed Class assertion. (Deceptive Majority, 145)
Of course, Tagore was also involved in anti-colonial movements and his prose express an ambivalence toward “nationalism” that is becoming more relevant every day, but there are power imbalances that contributed to the unique reach of his voice as well as the force of his writings. The memory and imagination of a lot of upper-caste, upper class Bengalis (bhadraloks, ahem) today seek to erase these power imbalances so that they can worship Tagore as excellence, and not really read his works as complex, fraught, provocative artistic expressions rooted in a specific social-political context.
To celebrate literature written in various Indian languages is also to remember their complex histories. And one cannot help but note the mediating power of English both in and outside India. Having said so, I must reiterate I am very glad to see a Hindi novel on the International Booker shortlist. And I am also thrilled whenever Bengali-language books get wider recognition (I mean, it doesn’t have to be Booker). I am also reading a lot of writings from other cultures in translation these days. I just finished reading two more books on the 2022 International Booker longlist that beautifully render experiences of attachment and isolation: Sang Young Park’s Love in the Big City, translated by Anton Hur, and Jonas Eika’s After the Sun, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg. Both books are funny in specific ways, and work really well when offering fragmentary reflections on contemporary life.
At the moment, I am working on some translation myself, though not for formal publication. I am trying to better understand Bhakti poetry (in the padabali tradition) and one of the ways I pay any text my deepest attention is when I am translating it. For now, I am mainly looking to study the very embodied and erotic approach to devotion in these texts and how these erotics challenge social mores. The language of these texts is a combination of Bengali and Brajabali–that is, it is syncretic from the outset. My translations are experiments in discovering the extent to which the ideas and philosophies can enter English. Here’s my somewhat literal translation of a poem attributed to (ca. 16-/17th century) poet Govindadasa, found in an anthology edited by Akshay Kumar Chandra Sarkar:
Seeing his beauty, remembering his sweet touch
The body cannot contain its pleasure.
The bewitching melody of his flute, so euphonious
Do the others not hear?
Now what advice will you give me, dear friend?
My body and mind are enthralled in Kanu’s (Krishna’s) love.
Won’t heed any other religion in the slightest.
My nose is intoxicated with his fragrance.
No other rhythm in the limbs or identification.
His ever-new virtues settle in my mind.
Where is the room for any other religion?
The husband’s (head of the household’s) rebukes, the blustering of elders,
Rouse my laughs.
What if a mistake is made in such a state of mind,
Asks Gobinda Das.
(Listen to T read out the original poem and the translation).
If you read Bengali and understand padabali, feel free to correct me :).
And do share the many worlds and wonders you have found in translation.
Post script from P.
“What language do you dream in?”
This seductive question was posed to me in the middle of an intense discussion on the politics of language, as we were checking off the usual talking points that come up during such discussions, from postcolonialism to social media, Hinglish to China. It was the kind of question that shifted the mood of the moment, and in such a real way. We were all quiet, trying to conjure up that last dream, navigating text as both subtext and context.
I have used it like something of a north star ever since, because like much else, the revelations of our subconscious are powerful markers, even if underestimated. It’s also helped me navigate my past, the lived history of growing up amidst several languages, the verbal vignettes of a life not lost, only enriched in translation.
The Hindi of my parents’ home, the Hindi of my summer holidays in India with large extended families, the Arabic I had to learn as part of school curriculum, one of the first languages that I discovered first in script, followed by songs and the Emirati national anthem.
There was the English of my school friends, my playground friends, the common language we all spoke. The one I bulked up by reading books, watching American soaps, accidentally teaching younger cousins on my trips to India, who were always listening hard. An English that could be as grand and/or mundane as the moment warranted. Soaring in a blank verse soliloquy one moment, shown its place as a “very phunny language” in an Amitabh Bachchan dialogue, comically delivered. There was also the English of Delhi’s streets of the late 90’s-early 2000’s, which I learnt as a college student trying on her street smarts right after her daily dose of Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad - the last being a writer said to have brought “non-English sensibilities” into the hallowed canon. Someone we read as as legit English Honours course material.
There is also Pahadi somewhere, serving as static, decorative backdrop like snow-capped mountains in a painting. With grandparents getting older and eventually dying, the language of my so-called clan, only pops up during rituals - in the zeal of a wedding song, the sisterhood of a Holi milan, the lullabies sung to babies.
When you live in north India, there is Punjabi of course. A language that entered my life proper via marriage, shifting my understanding of it from ‘it’s-so-loud’ to ‘it’s-so-loud-and-hilarious’. I mean which other language is so mindful of the pottiness of life, all puns intended, I wonder? And the sheer pragmatic wisdom of a pet na paiyye roti te sab gallan khoti is purely priceless.
And then there is Marathi. The language of gappa and endless laughter, life stories swapping, reprimanding and cajoling, which my mother shared with her mother and her sister, my Mausi. An entire language I picked up simply by being around.
Much like RM, the only English-speaking member of the world’s number one K Pop band, who learnt the language by watching F.R.I.E.N.D.S.
Speaking of! Aaj kal, with a pre-teen at large, my home is fast becoming a surround sound club for K Pop and K Dramas. Now the Bollywood-inspired dance moves of BTS complemented with the catchy tunes that swing from English to Korean are bound to invade my dreams sooner than later, doncha think?
More from T. & P.
T.’s interview with author Namrata Poddar about her novel Border Less was published in Los Angeles Review of Books. Last year, T. also interviewed Meena Kandasamy about her approach to translation for Asymptote.